Fascinating History of Taekwondo: Korean Martial Art

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Fascinating History Of Taekwondo: Korean Martial Art

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Table of Contents

  • Introduction
  • The History of Taekwondo in Ancient Korea
  • Taekwondo During Japanese Occupation and its Resurgence
  • Unification and Development of Taekwondo as a Sport
  • Conclusion


Taekwondo is a Korean martial art with a long and fascinating history. Taekwondo comes from the Latin words Tae, meaning to strike with the foot, Kwon, meaning fist, and Do, meaning discipline, so together, the name Taekwondo means “The art of kicking and punching” or “foot-hand-way of life” (Park and Leibowitz 13). It is believed to be one of the oldest oriental arts of unarmed self-defense and is similar in action to Karate. In ancient times it was used by secret military forces and was called Tae Kyon, Soobok and Tang Soo Do. Taekwondo combines Japanese and Chinese styles of self-defense, and although it began more than two thousand years ago, at around 50 BC in Korea (Park, Park, and Gerrard 1), its origins can be traced back to 2332 BC (Kim 8). Taekwondo, sport that improves the mind and body tremendously. Taekwondo has a deep history and evolution.

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The History of Taekwondo in Ancient Korea

At this time the Ancient Korean State was first established. Because the Korean people have always had to fight to protect their independence or try to take it back from the Chinese, warriors from central Asia, the Mongols and the Japanese – they developed strong loyalty to their country, a fierce warrior spirit and a strong will to survive. There all are characteristics that are important to Taekwondo.

In 1935 a team of Japanese archeologists found pictures of people practicing Taekwondo stances, blocks and punches on the ceiling of an ancient royal tomb in Korea called Muyong-Chong (Park, Park, Gerrard 1). It is believed to have been painted between 3 and 427 AD.

Back then Korea was divided into three kingdoms: Silla, Koguryo and Baekche. Taekwondo first began in the Koguryo kingdom. Members of the royal family from the Silla kingdom, later called the Hwarang (meaning “the way of spreading manhood”) (Park, Park, Gerrard 2), spread Taekwondo throughout Korea. Hwarang Do, meaning “the way of the flower of youth”, was more than just martial discipline. (Park and Leibowitz 6-7) It was based on the combination of old philosophical principles, and was aimed at building strong values and proper civic attitudes.

Over the following centuries, Hwarang Do learned from the great philosophies of the world. It learned loyalty to the state and appreciation for fellow humans from Confucianism. Taoism taught it the idea of action through non-action. From Buddhism it adopted the philosophy of doing good and staying away from evil, and respecting the holiness of life.

The Silla kingdom was on the Korean coast and Japanese pirates were always attacking the people living there. Because of this it was hard for them to practice Taekwondo. One day, a king from the Koguryo kingdom named King Gwanggaeto felt bad for the Silla kingdom and sent in fifty thousand soldiers to scare away the pirates. After that Taekwondo spread and was called Tae Kyon. The Tae Kyon trained warriors then became known as Hwarang warriors (Park, Park, Gerrard 2).

The Chinese sent an army of more than a million men to attempt to take over Korea in the sixth century AD. However, the Chinese armies failed miserably, causing the Sui dynasty to fall.

During the times of the Koryo and the Yi dynasties in the tenth century, Taekwondo had come to be known as Soobok, which means “punching and butting.” It was used as a skill to improve health and as a sport, and was encouraged as a martial art as well.

Taekwondo During Japanese Occupation and its Resurgence

In 1909 the Japanese invaded Korea and controlled it for the next thirty six years. During these years Taekwondo was outlawed and the Korean people were not allowed to practice Tae Kyon or Soobok. They would sneak to Buddhist temples to practice in secret and once again kept it alive despite the Japanese. (Park, Park, Gerrard 8)

Soobok began to spread very quickly and after Korea was freed from Japan in 1945 people started calling it Taekwondo (Park and Leibowitz 9). Although it was practiced for centuries, it made a big comeback after World War II as part of a national effort to teach patriotism and unity in the Korean people. It became required in military training and was introduced into the schools. About ten schools of Taekwondo were founded by masters who had different philosophies and styles.

When it first began to spread there were many different styles of Taekwondo (Park and Leibowitz 9). A style or school of Taekwondo was called a “kwan” in Korean. The kwans all had a lot in common but each one did something a little different from the others. There was no set way of bowing, warming up, punching, kicking or competing. Many times a master of one kwan did not get along with masters of other kwans. This made it very difficult for there to be a single Taekwondo community.

Unification and Development of Taekwondo as a Sport

Historically, until 1950 Taekwondo had many different names. First it was known as Kong Soo, meaning “empty hand.” Then its name changed to Tang Soo, which means “Tang hand”. Next came the

name Hwarang Do, meaning “warrior spirit”. Finally it was called Tae Kyun, that is “kicking and punching.” (Park and Leibowitz 9)

Today there are no more kwans and all the people who practice Taekwondo are united. Taekwondo is no longer just an art, but also a sport that is spreading quickly around the world.

The masters were able to come together and get over their differences mainly because of Dr. Un Yong Kim (Park and Leibowitz 11). He was the leader who showed all the other masters how to forget their disagreements. The masters say that Taekwondo would never have become the united popular Olympic sport that it is today if it was not for this highly respected grand master. Dr. Un Yong Kim is the leader of the Taekwondo world, president of the World Taekwondo Federation (WTF) and Vice President of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) (Park and Leibowitz 11). He is still working hard at helping Taekwondo grow and become as popular as other sports, like baseball, football and basketball.

In the historical period between 1950 and 1970, many Taekwondo associations formed to help develop this unique Korean martial art. Some of them are Korea Tang Soo Do Association, Korean Soo Bak Do Association, Korean Tae Soo Do Association and The Korean Taekwondo Association. Rules for the art were standardized by the Korea Taekwondo Association which was founded in 1961. The TK Association joined the Korean Athletic Association in 1963 and began to participate in national tournaments, and this helped making TK the national sport of Korea. TK is also included in the school curriculum from first grade through college. Recognition by the Korean government was received in 1965, when TK Association was adopted as the organization that would be used to unite the different schools and groups. The

Historically, International Taekwondo Federation was started in 1966 and the World Taekwondo Federation in 1973.

The World TK Center, Kukkiwon, was built in Seoul in 1972 (Kim 9). Its purpose was to train students from all over the world, and it is now also used as a research center, advancing TK as a scientific sport. It is also where black belt promotion testing is taking place and national and international TK championships are held.

The first championship to be held in Kukkiwon took place in 1973, with thirty countries participating in team competitions. Korea placed first, the United States was second and Mexico and the Republic of China tied for third place. (Kim 10) These championships are held every other year. The pre World Games TK Championships were held in Seoul in 1978. Taekwondo was a demonstration sport in the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul, Korea and it is an official sport in the Pan American Games (Park and Leibowitz 10). There are also Junior Olympics held every year for kids.


Today, Taekwondo is the official sport of Korea and is included in the Korean school curriculum from first grade through college. The history of Taekwondo should be known all around the world.

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